Google isn’t building the ultimate VR headset. It’s setting the foundation for one

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When word spread in 2016 that Google would move into serious virtual reality, not just disposable cardboard viewers, my colleague Dieter Bohn immediately put a couple of pieces together. One was the need for headsets that could track motion without dedicated “VR rooms” full of cameras or markers. The other was Project Tango, a Google experiment that used an array of cameras to map physical space. Google only announced the more modest Daydream mobile headset that year, but a Tango-powered device seemed inevitable. At I/O 2017, it finally arrived, in the form of a standalone headset that’s supposed to ship later this year.

Google head of VR Clay Bavor describes the new headset as one point on a spectrum called “immersive computing,” an emerging technological paradigm that “enables our computers to work more like we do.” His team’s been working on this project for two and a half years, and Google is partnering with Qualcomm, HTC, and Lenovo to release a reference design and two commercial products based on it. If this works, Google’s years-long experiments with augmented and virtual reality will have converged into the ideal self-contained VR headset. But the standalone device feels more like a new beginning than a culmination — and it may be healthier for VR if we treat it that way.

The new VR headset uses Google’s Android-based Daydream platform and a system called “WorldSense,” which tracks motion through front-facing edge-detecting cameras. I tried a prototype of the design, and it feels like a solid foundation that could be fine-tuned into something great, if Google can keep to the rest of its promises.

The final headsets are supposed to cost about as much as high-end tethered products like the $599 Oculus Rift or $799 HTC Vive, but without the additional cost of a PC. While that’s a lot of money, it’s not drastically more expensive than what people might pay for a gaming console. They’re designed to make VR feel casual and accessible even to people who don’t have Daydream-ready phones, especially people who aren’t interested in Android at all. “It turns out that a lot of people have iPhones,” Bavor jokes.


Meanwhile, a rendering system called Seurat — named after the pointillist painter Georges Seurat — is supposed to offer image quality that rivals what you’d get on a high-end PC. Andrey Doronichev, Google’s director of product management, describes Seurat as “computational magic.” It takes a rendered three-dimensional scene and samples shots of it from many different angles. As seen above, Seurat uses these images to assemble a facade that drastically reduces the number of polygons the headset needs to render, without a visible loss of quality.

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Google can also use the same Daydream user interface it’s been fine-tuning for the past year on phones. A software update codenamed Euphrates will add the features you need for devices that users can’t just pop apart and use as a phone, like a full-featured web browser and a dashboard for accessing settings and other non-VR parts of Android.

But for all that, the device Google describes doesn’t feel like a finished product, or a direct competitor to tethered headsets. It feels like an amped-up Daydream. Google’s standalone headset is using the same familiar interface as phone-based Daydream devices. Unfortunately, the standalone headset also imports Daydream’s simple remote, instead of a pair of controllers that can convincingly mimic virtual hands. That means it still can’t run apps like Tilt Brush and Job Simulator — two beloved VR experiences from Google-owned studios. For now, those will remain restricted to third-party devices like the Rift and Vive. Partners like HTC and Lenovo can’t substitute their own controllers, either, or integrate technology like Leap Motion hand tracking.

Bavor says this will create a consistent standard for developers, and suggests that it might feel different using the remote with inside-out tracking. “Obviously things like Tilt Brush won’t get translated to an experience like this,” he says. “But what we’ve found is some nice ways of blending [inside-out] head tracking and a [non-tracked] controller.” The change is certainly on his mind: “We do updates every year, and there’ll be future updates” to the hardware, he says. For now, the lack of such a ubiquitous feature will make the headset feel a bit like a hybrid development kit, no matter how polished the rest of it is.

And that seems like exactly what Google wants. An exclusive look at the hardware beforehand, written by Stephen Levy at Backchannel, is an exercise in aggressively resetting the narrative that VR’s arrival is imminent. In a long essay published alongside it, Bavor pushed back against the idea of a “killer app” that sells everyone on VR, suggesting that seemingly niche applications will slowly grow to have mass appeal.


Google Daydream Home

YouTube, which arguably is Daydream’s killer app right now, feels like another loose end for Google. People can’t move around inside its 360-degree videos, so unlike in the vast majority of VR experiences, the standalone headset’s sophisticated tracking system won’t do much. But Google, which already has a VR video platform called Jump, could change that with cameras that map three-dimensional space as they record it. This is experimental technology, but companies like Lytro are already using versions of it. So is the ultimate goal a YouTube where people will be able to literally walk around inside videos. “Maybe,” Bavor says coyly.

For the last few years, companies have all been building toward their first generation of “mass-market” (by virtual reality standards) headsets. Success meant creating something that felt finished and ready to push out to millions of people. Google certainly seems to hope that phone-based Daydream headsets are at that point — it projects there will be “tens of millions” of Daydream-ready phones by the end of the year.

But depending on what HTC and Lenovo unveil, Google’s standalone headset may be more like a bridge between two generations of virtual reality. A lot of pieces are falling into place, but in the process, Google is highlighting the gaps that remain. For now, that’s not a bad thing.

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